Hypothesis: apoptosis caused by cytotoxins represents a defensive response that evolved to combat intracellular pathogens.
Vaux DL., Häcker G.
1. Over 100 different agents have been shown, under certain circumstances, to cause apoptosis, a form of cell death with characteristic morphology. In most cases, the mechanism of cell death is likely to be the same, as expression of the cell death inhibitory gene bcl-2 can frequently prevent apoptotic changes and/or delay cell death. 2. These observations raise the question of how and why cells detect these agents and why they respond by implementing the suicide mechanism that bcl-2 can control. Our hypothesis is that apoptosis is used as an anti-viral strategy, and that cells interpret any metabolic disturbance as evidence of infection by a virus and thereby kill themselves in response to these toxins before they are killed by the action of the toxin itself. 3. Experiments on the effect of sodium azide upon growth factor-dependent cells support this idea. Bcl-2 can delay cell death caused by azide, and inhibit apoptotic changes seen by electron microscopy, but cannot prevent the eventual death of the cells. 4. These ideas suggest that drugs designed to regulate cell death may be useful for the treatment of ischaemic or neoplastic diseases. For example, human cells may activate a suicide pathway in response to sub-lethal amounts of anoxia following a stroke or heart attack and so blocking apoptosis may be a useful therapy to limit tissue damage. On the other hand, increasing the propensity of cells to activate their physiological cell death mechanisms may enhance the effectiveness of toxins designed to kill tumour cells.